Prohibition was failing.
Six years after the 18th amendment went into effect, not only were Americans still drinking, they were drinking more every year. The annual per capita liquor consumption had risen from .02 to 1.2 gallons of alcohol.
Most of this bootleg liquor wasn’t coming from smugglers or from home-made stills. America’s chief source of illegal liquor was legal liquor.
Several distilleries still produced industrial alcohol for manufacturers. But before shipping this pure alcohol, the Treasury Department required the distillers to add materials that would render it undrinkable. The list included kerosene and gasoline, as well as iodine, mercury, formaldehyde, and chloroform. But the most common ingredient was highly toxic methyl alcohol, also called “wood alcohol.”
Wood alcohol has no color or distinctive odor, and it tastes like drinking alcohol. But when ingested it breaks down into a form of formaldehyde. Drinkers don’t notice the difference at first. Wood alcohol produces a short-lived inebriation quickly followed by a hangover. If lucky, the drinker might experience only a headache, nausea, and severe abdominal pain. If unlucky, the drinker could be blinded (this took only three drinks of wood alcohol), paralyzed, or killed.
Bootleggers got around this problem by hiring chemists to re-distill industrial liquor, which removed the adulterating chemical. This “re-natured” alcohol wasn’t always 100 percent free of toxins. Bootleggers were only interested in rendering a drinkable product that wasn’t immediately lethal. For example, of 480,000 gallons of bootleg liquor seized in New York in 1926, 98 percent contained poisonous additives.
Fortunately, bootleggers usually diluted their liquor heavily, which reduced the danger.
Despite the interventions from bootleggers, Americans continued to die from wood alcohol poisoning. In 1926, for example, a batch of liquor with a high concentration of wood alcohol circulated in New York. On Christmas Eve, Bellevue Hospital treated a rush of poisoning victims, beginning with the man who, trembling with fear, staggered into the emergency room claiming that Santa Claus was chasing him with a baseball bat. He soon died. Sixty more victims followed on Christmas day. Eight died. Over the next two days, there were 23 more fatalities.
Americans knew that any time they drank liquor of an unknown provenance, they were gambling with their lives. Yet they continued to drink.
By 1927, the Treasury Department had grown frustrated. So had the Anti-Saloon League, the powerful lobbying group that had spearheaded the 18th amendment. At their urging, the Treasury Department decided to get even tougher. It ordered industrial distillers to boost the percentage of wood alcohol, which would make purifying it to drinkable even harder. The government reasoned that once Americans heard about the poisonous new formula, they’d avoid all alcohol.
The year before the Treasury ordered higher levels of wood alcohol, 400 people died from adulterated alcohol. The next year, 1927, the annual figure rose to 700.
By the end of prohibition in 1933, 10,000 people had been killed by poisoned alcohol, according to the book Prohibition by Edward Behr.
This number is cited by nearly every source on the subject, though no one seems to know how the number was derived. But given the death toll of 1927, the body count must have at least been in the thousands.
Americans were angry to learn of the poisonings. What had begun as a moral crusade to strengthen the country had turned into a vindictive campaign willing to kill Americans for a crime that would usually involve just a fine. As columnist Heywood Broun put it, “the eighteenth is the only amendment with a death penalty.”
So were the poisonings intentional? Did the government increase the poison in ethanol knowing that it would result in even greater deaths? It’s difficult to determine the intention of long-ago actions. But we have some revealing comments from Treasury officials of that time.
For example, when a wood-alcohol-related death in 1928 prompted a public outcry, a Federal Grand Jury concluded that the federal government bore no responsibility. “Wood alcohol is not a beverage, but a recognized poison,” it decided. Its sale and use were a matter for state authorities.
Theassistant secretary of the Treasury in charge of prohibition said that drinkers on the fringes of society were “dying off fast from poison ‘hooch’.” If the result of these deaths was a sober America, he said, “a good job will have been done.”
The chief chemist for the prohibition unit said Americans couldn’t possibly taste denatured alcohol without realizing it was unfit for consumption. Yet in 1923, he admitted to Time magazine that “it is impossible to detect wood alcohol except by a thorough chemical analysis performed by a skilled chemist in a well-equipped laboratory.”
The poisonings soured many Americans on prohibition, and on the Anti-Saloon League. The League’s chairman, Wayne Wheeler, responded to news of the poisonings by saying “the government is under no obligation to furnish people with alcohol that is drinkable when the Constitution prohibits it. The person who drinks this industrial alcohol is a deliberate suicide.”
The Anti-Saloon League had anticipated the deaths and were not bothered by the idea. Not only had the League’s lobbyists urged the poisoning of industrial alcohol, they also lobbied to remove the “poison” warning on the containers. When challenged by the deaths, a League member said the deaths were insignificant compared to the numbers killed by legal liquor before prohibition.
In 1933, alcohol was made legal again. People stopped dying from poisoned liquor. Many returned to their old drinking habits, but at a lower level than before prohibition.
Alcohol-related deaths didn’t stop, though. Unadulterated alcohol is now the killer, claiming 88,000 lives every year.
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